Encore Michigan

Michigan Premiere: ‘Life Sucks’ at Open Book scores with Uncle Vanya update

Review September 11, 2017 Graham Mitchell

TRENTON, Mich.–Aaron Posner’s Life Sucks, in its Michigan Premier, almost seems like it was written with Open Book Theatre’s mission in mind. Artistic Director Krista Schafer Ewbank says, “Theatre is a way for us to connect with each other through stories…of human struggle or triumph. We hope you come away with insights and questions.” Life Sucks does just that.

Adapted from Anton Chekov’s play Uncle Vanya, Life Sucks explores love – requited or not, longing, loss, and many more reasons as to why life might not be such a great experience, as the title implies.

Vanya, played by Joshua R. Brown, is feeling a little blue – to put it lightly. Think of him as the Russian version of Eeyore, constantly moping around and complaining. He is in love with Ella who is married to someone Vanya can’t stand. This causes angst and feelings of helplessness and unhappiness. He hopes that if Ella could just love him, all of his problems would go away. Unfortunately, it’s a one-way street and Ella is not interested in Vanya at all.

As it turns out, Vanya is not the only one interested in Ella (Caitlin Morrison). Her husband, the Professor, bemoans her lack of interest in their marriage; she is also pursued by Dr. Aster and Pickles. Personally I don’t see the appeal. Ella is self-centered, complains almost as much a Vanya, and is unable to appreciate the good things in her own life.

Jonathan Davidson excellently navigates the intricate character of Dr. Aster. While the doctor can be selfish and bitter at times, he does come through for his friend Vanya by prescribing, and administering, some tough love when needed most.

Other highlights of the play are Babs, the older, hippie-ish friend of Vanya, and the aforementioned Professor. Linda Rabin Hammell’s “Babs” binds all of the characters together with her non-judgmental love and honesty. Her natural delivery of the lines firmly establishes her character and is consistent from beginning to end.

Dale Dobson gives the perfect portrayal of a pontificating, pompous, philosophical, pretentious professor. Or, in other words, a pseudo-intellectual jack-ass – always using million dollar words to seem smarter and never talking to any one, just at them or “over” them.

Taylor Morrow and Mandy Logsdon (Sonia and Pickles respectively) bring much needed heart, youthful naiveté, and innocence to the ensemble.

The direction by Krista Schafer Ewbank is well done, but pacing lags a bit at times. Hopefully that will pick up as the run continues. The lighting by Harley Miah is simple, yet an effective, visual storyteller. An example of this is when the house lights come up, encouraging the audience to interact with the characters. Not only does this break the fourth wall, but allows us to become a part of the journey.

Overall, Life Sucks is a wonderful way to begin Open Book Theatre’s fourth season. The story of this play will stick with you long after you’ve driven home. Posner reminds us that while we might not know exactly what difficulties others are facing in life, showing a little empathy is what can truly make this life not suck.

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